A man who flipped off a Colorado Springs police officer last June was “roughed up” and arrested on a false charge in revenge, according to a federal lawsuit calling it the latest in a pattern of free-speech violations by police and city officials.
A civil-rights complaint filed by attorneys for Michael Sexton names Officer Matthew Anderson and the city of Colorado Springs as defendants.
The 33-page complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver, cites more than a dozen other instances, dating to 2009, in which police or other city officials allegedly abused their authority in seeking reprisals for activities such as cursing at officers or pointing cameras at them.
Collectively, the earlier instances resulted in settlements or claims accounting for “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in taxpayer money, but no changes in practice, according to the lawsuit.
“Those cases show that the city is liable for Officer Anderson’s actions because that’s how they train them to do things in Colorado Springs,” said Sexton’s attorney, Andy McNulty of Denver.
Sexton, 32, twice extended his middle finger at a police officer in June — what the complaint calls a “silent protest” protected by the courts.
He was handcuffed and thrown against a police car by Anderson before being cited with jaywalking, according to the complaint. The confrontation occurred after dark near a 7-Eleven at 30th Street and Colorado Avenue, and was captured on the officer’s body-worn camera.
The jaywalking citation was dismissed by prosecutors, and Anderson was ultimately disciplined for abusing an officer’s discretion, the complaint states. But Anderson wasn’t disciplined for what the lawsuit calls a “false arrest” nor for excessive force, which included Anderson “wrenching” Sexton’s arm behind his back when he was handcuffed, according to the filing.
Police spokesman Lt. Jim Sokolik and city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos acknowledged requests for comments by The Gazette, but did not provide them, citing the pending litigation. Anderson could not be reached for comment.
McNulty said the lawsuit seeks no specific dollar amount, and that any award is likely to be determined by a federal jury should the case proceed to trial.
“The fact that this officer is still on duty, even though he’s so thin-skinned, is really problematic,” McNulty said.
The suit alleges police have a “custom and practice” of targeting Sexton for his criticism, including in January 2019 when he was cited after filming a downtown traffic stop and directing profanity at a different officer. Sexton was cited with disorderly conduct alleging an obscene gesture, a misdemeanor that was dismissed nearly a year later, on the eve of trial.
Anderson is a five-year veteran who, as a rookie, was recognized for valor in confronting Noah Harpham, a rifle-toting assailant who killed three people in downtown Colorado Springs in 2015. Four officers opened fire on Harpham, including Anderson, and Harpham was killed by a shot fired by one of them.
Federal law exempts police officers from lawsuits for actions in the line of duty, except when their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Suing the city will require Sexton’s attorney to demonstrate a pattern of “deliberate indifference” to the violations, said Colorado Springs attorney Ed Farry, who isn’t involved in the case.
“Believe it or not, the case against the city is probably easier than it is against the cop,” Farry said.
McNulty said the right to flip someone off has been clearly established by the courts and isn’t a significant hurdle to overcome.
McNulty was one of the attorneys who represented Ryan and Benjamin Brown, African-American brothers in Colorado Springs who received a $212,000 settlement in a lawsuit alleging racial profiling in a 2015 traffic stop.
Ryan Brown, then 31, recorded the stop on his cellphone, which showed Colorado Springs police officers aggressively pulling him and his then-22-year-old brother from their vehicle at gunpoint for reasons officers declined to reveal.
The Browns’ case was among those mentioned in the lawsuit filed Tuesday.